A cult hero since his days with mod-punk kingpins Chisel, Ted Leo has long been a vital and progressive presence within the East Coast's vibrant musical underground, co-opting elements of punk, new-wave, ska, Northern soul and Britpop into his sophisticatedly swaggering oeuvre
. Although his punk pedigree is second to none, Leo has only recently begun to receive even a smidgen of the attention he richly deserves. Now, rejuvenated by a short recording hiatus, he has returned to the fray, having ironed out the major problems that dogged The Tyranny of Distance
(namely the lack of a consistent backing band) to deliver the most unfailingly stirring album in his expansive canon.
Derived from the grand traditions of the American underground, Hearts of Oak also draws heavily from the annals of British rock lore, resulting in a rough-and-steady sound that's indebted to Dischordian dedication and Commander Cody-inspired melodic mayhem, Thin Lizzy rambunctiousness and hardcore heart -- and thoroughly dosed with thorny morsels of sardonic wit that recall a young and eloquently angry Elvis Costello.
In the very best way, Hearts of Oak reminds one of the early work of Nick Lowe: straightforwardly poignant tales of commonplace heroes and disgruntled outsiders, carefully enveloped in coverlets of whirligig guitars, Motown ambiance and jumpsteady rhythms. It's a diverse array of musical weapons, but it's this vastness of scope that makes the two tunesmiths so endearing. Never one to forsake melody for mood or a killer hook for a yearning lyric, Leo hop-skips around the musical map, carving out blazing minuets of harmony-swept pub-punk ("The High Party", "I'm a Ghost"), a gloriously righteous homage to the Specials ("Where Have all the Rude Boys Gone?"), and skronky pop odes ("Dead Voices", "Tell Balgeary, Balgury is Dead"). If he's not this generation's most raggedly refined songwriting presence, then he's certainly in the top ten percent of his class -- a bona fide show-stopping tunesmith on a par with giants Elliott Smith, Ron Sexsmith and Richard Davies.
With a dynamic vengeance and a Celtic tune in his heart, Ted Leo might not be the answer to all the music world's problems. Still, it's certainly a pleasure to wind up Hearts of Oak and watch him go-go-go.